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I Murdered a Caterpillar
I am GUILTY and deserve no mercy for my sins.
Last week I murdered a caterpillar.
Second degree. It wasn’t premeditated or anything. I don’t spend my evenings dreaming up creative ways to execute insects, but it also wasn’t simply an act of bug-slaughter. I’ve killed dozens of bugs, sometimes with relative indifference, occasionally with fascination, and often with a pang of sadness. I’m usually more of a catch and release guy, but this time was different. There was malice in my heart. It was an act of passion. Vengeance, even.
Let me explain.
(but before I spill my guts please consider subscribing, it will really help me feel like we’re all on the same side here.)
There is a particular species of pest that is every gardener’s worst nightmare: the Tomato Hornworm caterpillar. These little monsters grow from zero to the size of a healthy index finger in a few days and wreak havoc on all kinds of leafy plants1: peppers, eggplant, potatoes, and, of course, tomato plants.
This is all well and good, unless you happen to be a tomato plant, or a human being who wants to harvest tomatoes from a tomato plant, or honestly any being that isn’t a tomato hornworm caterpillar. So if you are me, this is actually not all well and good.
If you are me, this is very bad news.
Hornworms don’t normally go straight for the tomatoes. For that, I might actually be able to forgive them. A summer tomato fresh off the vine is a singularly delicious treat. But these barbarians are more interested in the leaves than the fruit, and can kill off a plant before it even has the chance to provide any tomatoes. A single Tomato Hornworm can strip an entire tomato vine of its leaves in a matter of days.
Eat my tomatoes? I’m angry, but empathetic.
Kill the plant before it can grow tomatoes? Now we’ve crossed a line.
Hence the murder.
In the late afternoon of Friday, September 8th, I walked into the backyard to spend a bit of time in the garden. My goal was to thin out some old growth on our tomato plants, check them for disease, and softly encourage them to make lots and lots of yummy tomatoes (yes, I talk to them, it helps, I promise). Everything was going well until I noticed a branch without leaves.
My heart sank as I scanned up the vine and found another, and another.
They had come. It was happening. Telltale signs of hornworm apocalypse.
I silently cursed myself for not checking on the plants more often. We had been out of town for a week; the eggs must have hatched while we were gone, and now the damage was done.
I spent a few minutes searching for the culprit. Tomato Hornworms are sneaky bastards, their green hue blends in perfectly with tomato leaves, but eventually I found the perpetrator clinging to the top of the plant, chomping away at a cherry tomato.
The gall. The nerve. I get that a caterpillar’s got to eat like the rest of us, but to graze away on MY tomato RIGHT in front of me? The audacity! This was an act of defiance, through and through. I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure he flipped me off with one of his little caterpillar fingers and spewed insults at my friends and family as he went for another greedy mouthful of fresh tomato flesh.
I went to get a pair of gloves because, even though the internet says tomato hornworms are harmless, I don’t fully believe it. Their red stinger-looking tail is a harmless decoy, I know that much is true. But I wasn’t so sure that this one wouldn’t try to take a chomp out of my finger if I gave him the opportunity. I clearly had a wild-card caterpillar on my hands, there’s no saying what it would do if given a window of opportunity. I wasn’t going to take any chances.
With my gloved hand I plucked — no, I yanked. It was a yank, I can admit that. I was not gentle with the caterpillar when I pulled him off the vine and walked around the side yard toward the street. But this little worm was eating the tomato plant my wife and I had raised from a seedling together. It was practically our child, and this invader inflicted bodily harm without remorse or apology. I wasn’t exactly feeling patience flow through my veins.
I marched down the driveway with the emotional energy and intelligence of a junior higher and hucked him — I’m telling you, I flat out yakked this guy with a full-extension overhand baseball pitch motion — out into the middle of the street. Like, he got some serious hang time. Multiple seconds passed as he twirled through the air. I had already turned around and started to walk back toward the house when he landed with a soft yet distinctly audible plep-p-p on the asphalt.
Some people use the sound of a bell or a gong to begin a meditation and return themselves to the present moment. For me, the sound of a caterpillar plummeting to earth from treetop height did the trick.
This sound brought me back to my senses, and I saw myself as the absolute monster that I am with the full blazing intensity of undiluted awareness. I had just walked into HomeTown Buffet for caterpillars and yanked the only other customer in the restaurant out of line by their shirt collar, dragged them into the parking lot, beat them up, and spit in their face (okay, I didn’t spit on the caterpillar) all for simply eating at the salad bar that I wanted to eat at.
I was Jabba the Hutt, but instead of feeding Luke Skywalker to the Sarlacc I had thrown Tomato Hornwalker to bake to death on the hot asphalt or be pecked to death by parrots.
This realization struck me in an instant, and a wave of guilt washed over me. A small wave. More like a barely noticeable ripple, really, but guilt nonetheless.
I needed to excise the caterpillar from the garden, this was non-negotiable. But maybe this brutal roadside execution was going a little too far.
I could have walked literally ten more steps and released him in the parklet across the street. At least that would’ve given him a fighting chance. Sure, there’s probably not any plants in the Solanaceae family for him to eat over there, and yes, he almost certainly would’ve been devoured by a squirrel/crow/parrot/possum within a matter of hours.
But it still would have been more merciful than leaving him to die in the street, right?
The Moral Dilemma
I get that this story is a bit of a reach. Caterpillar murder isn’t one of the traditionally recognized cardinal sins.
I believe that we all have a built-in sense of what is good, right, and beautiful, but it only kicks in with certainty after the fact. You always get to find out when you miss the mark, but you have to act first. Call it whatever you want — conscience, self inquiry, the holy spirit, it doesn’t really matter — it is that small voice entangled in time right alongside us, or within us, that is figuring things out moment by moment.
This was one of those moments I knew I couldn’t just shake off. I’d caught myself in the act and, though I knew the guilt of caterpillar murder likely wouldn’t follow me to the grave, or even all the way back inside to the refrigerator, I recognize that the way you handle the little things in life is inevitably how you will handle the big things.
We all know that practice makes perfect. Ignore that still small voice too often, and you start to get good at ignoring it.
And so, not because I am any kind of morally upright being, but mostly because I had nothing else going on that afternoon, I decided to turn back down the driveway and make things right.
No sooner had I come down from my spiritual epiphany and decided to do the right thing than a white Buick emerged around the corner and started vrooming down the street — straight toward the caterpillar I had moments ago wished dead but now felt morally obligated to protect. I froze in place as the Buick approached, and could do nothing but peer between my fingers as it rolled over the spot where Tomato Hornwalker helplessly lay.
Miraculously, Hornwalker passed unscathed between the wheels, and I let out a sigh of relief.
I rolled my eyes at how quickly I’d waffled on my killer instincts. I really couldn’t believe what I was doing as I walked toward the street. Let’s get this over with before I change my mind. Five seconds earlier I had literally hurled this caterpillar through the air to die in the street as recompense for ravaging my garden, and now I was practically running to save it from oncoming traffic.
Before I stepped off the curb, I looked both ways like my dad taught me, and it so happened that another car was heading up the street toward me. Listen, I’m all for helping out a caterpillar in need, but I draw the line at leaping in front of a moving vehicle to save a bug. I haven’t completely lost my mind.
He had no way of knowing, but Hornwalker’s fate hung in the balance, out of both my control and his. Whether he lived to become a giant hawk moth and raise a family of his own or returned to the earth from whence he came rested in the hands of an anonymous Pasadena Audi driver. All I could do was wait and watch, and quietly whisper a vow that if the lord delivered him through this one, I would personally deliver him across the street to the promised land.
Vvvvvrrrrroooooooooooooosssshhhhhh — thwack.
He never stood a chance. Hornwalker was instantaneously obliterated into a vibrant green streak across the tarmac, sustaining a direct hit from the front left goodyear of the passing Audi. It was absolute carnage.
I could do nothing but stare, mouth agape, at the spot where moments earlier my newest friend and bitterest enemy once stood. I stood there on the curb blinking for a minute or an eon, I’ll never know for sure. For the first time all day, my mind went absolutely silent. Nothing. Nada. Blank and empty. Sortof peaceful, actually.
I have to believe that whatever karmic force governs the turning of the universe knows that my change of heart was genuine, and saw that I was robbed of my opportunity to make things right.
Eventually, I returned to earth, shrugged it off, and walked back to the garden. It was only a caterpillar, after all.
This week, I discovered two more tomato hornworms in the garden. I caught these ones early, they had hardly grown to the length of my pinky. I put on gloves (I still don’t trust caterpillars), gently snapped off the end of the branch they clung to, walked them across the street to the parklet, and deposited them in a fern.
I have no idea if they eat ferns, but it seemed like the safest place for terrible horrible no good very bad baby caterpillars to hang out.
Do you kill bugs and if so how bad do you feel when you do it AND does it change depending on the kind of bug it is?
Do bugs deserve to be protected from murder under US law?
Are there more or less humane ways to
executeget rid of bugs? What are they?
idk uh, do you have a favorite bug?
y’all ever feel bad for doing something not very bad? Tell me about it in the comments let’s chat.
Okay, not ALL kinds — anything in the Solanaceae family, if you want to get technical and nerdy about it.